Overcoming Your History-Part I

Have you ever wondered why it is that some organizations just cannot seem to create or facilitate real change no matter how much they talk about it or how many meetings, confabs and informal discussions they schedule?  Well, there are many reasons but one of the most ignored reasons is that they are unable to overcome their own history.  This problem of  institutional history is especially difficult if the organization experienced a period or periods of significant success.   Affecting change in any organization presupposes the ability to do two things simultaneously:  celebrate and honor your history while also allowing an honest critique of it.  This honor/critique balance is what provides an organization the freedom to create its future by thinking strategically and empowering its leaders to make the needed changes necessary to realize that future. 

Over the next three weeks I will be utilizing the work of Edgar H. Schein to highlight the three levels of organizational culture that if not understood and addressed will prevent an organization from realizing the kind of changes that allow it to overcome its history and create a new future.   Schein identifies three levels to any organization that must be recognized and evaluated if one is to understand the culture of that organization. From the least visible level to the most visible they are 1) underlying assumptions, beliefs, perceptions and feelings, 2) values expressed in terms of strategies, goals and philosophies, and 3) structures and processes. This week we will discuss level one. 


Level one, underlying assumptions, poses the most difficult challenge because it is the least conscious level of an organization but drives most of the decision-making.  One of the reasons this level is unconscious or subconscious is because its power to shape the culture depends on a shared history, but that shared history is not fully understood or shared by everyone in the organization.   Most people working in a organization have little if any knowledge of the “whole history” that has shaped the institution.  Their knowledge comes in bits and pieces and is seldom accompanied by an interpretive grid that helps them negotiate the rituals, behaviors and practices that have become institutional tradition.  If an institutional history has been written, it is seldom a critical piece of scholarship that serves as a helpful road map for the organization as it attempts to evaluate the more dysfunctional habits that frustrate attempts at real change. 

The unhealthy power of subconsciously shared assumptions is that they utilize a fragmentary history of former institutional success to create an environment in which any attempt to question the current leadership or decision making is viewed as awkward, inappropriate or just plain disloyal.  Dysfunctional cultures tend to produce dysfunctional leaders entrusted with the task of being true to the organization, which being interpreted means, they try to maintain the institution as it was when it was at its best.  Another way of saying this, the organization’s future is based on its past success and its leaders will be chosen based on how well they can create a future that reflects its past.

Next week, Overcoming Your History-Part II.


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